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The Cellar

Historical Essay

by Art Peterson

Originally published in "The Semaphore" #194, Spring 2011

At 576 Green, a drab doorway now marks the entrance to what was once the Cellar, now between Caffeé Sport and Citibank. The Cellar became a famous venue for poetry read to jazz. A groundbreaking LP recorded at the Cellar, featuring poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth, became a de rigueur part of every hipster’s record library.

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Robert Briggs reads at The Cellar, c. 1958.

Photo: C.R. Snyder

The unsung heroine of the Cellar was poet Ruth Weiss, who worked as a cocktail waitress there during these years, but performed with great musicians such as Brew Moore and Ben Webster on Wednesday nights. She says, “Ferlinghetti and Rexroth were poets who read over jazz; but jazz was apart of me; I swung.”

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Ruth Weiss reads at the Grant Avenue Fair in 1960.

Photo: C.R. Snyder

Weiss came to San Francisco in 1956 and took up residence at 555 Montgomery, an address later famous as the location where Allen Ginsberg composed “Howl.” Like Richard Brautigan, she sold little chap books of her poems for 20 cents each on the streets of North Beach. After a shift at the Cellar, and maybe a trek out to Bop City and the other Fillmore neighborhood clubs, she would return home to the roof of her Montgomery Street residence and shower in the building’s only facility for that purpose as dawn emerged over the starlit city.

Ruth-weiss-83.jpg

Ruth Weiss, 83 and still a poet, stands in front of her portrait at the Beat Museum, taken during the days she was reciting jazz and poetry at the Cellar.

Ruth Weiss’ latest book is “Can’t Stop the Beat” published in May by Divine Arts Press.

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